When I started my first studio I had a Mackie 32-8 mixer (which I still regret giving up to go virtual) and I've used the 1640 Onyx mixer to record a live comedy show for an NBC affiliate TV station. I tell you this for one reason only: I know what Mackie mixers are capable of in terms of sound quality. Now, the new VLZ series mixers promise the same sound quality as Mackie's big boys in a super-compact footprint. Let's see.
Abandoning my normal role as Kermit the hermit, I decided to throw down and play guitar and keyboards with a band that was assembled for our upcoming office-wide Musician's Friend Jam Night (Long John Chris McCrellis and the Hack All-Stars Karaoke Band and Traveling Dry Cleaners). I have two synths with stereo outs and a guitar effects unit with a mono/stereo out. I needed a minimum of three inputs (6 maximum) and setup/teardown had to be quick since eight other bands would be playing. Also, I had no idea what the backline amps would look like. I figured that a mini-mixer would do the trick, but I didn't want to buy one for one night only; and more to the point, I'm a battery-sniffing tone-snob who doesn't want the equivalent of a sonic speed bump in-between my instruments and amps.
As the above subtitle suggests, it just so happened that I was tapped to do a hands-on review of the Mackie 402- and 802-VLZ3. Call it providence or synchronicity, the mixers showed up on Tuesday, the week of the jam, giving me the opportunity to see if they could back up the promise of high-end sound quality with a footprint smaller than a Chinese empress.
Mackie 402-VLZ3 Compact Audio
At rehearsal later that night (Tuesday), I decided to go with the 402-VLZ3. I went mono out of the guitar effects pedals into channel one, using the hi-Z button and 1/4" line in; synth 1 into channel 2's 1/4" line in, and synth 2 into channel 3-4. To give you a mental image, synth 1 is a 61-note keyboard and synth 2 is a 1U rack module that sits on top of synth 1. Placing the 402-VLZ3 comfortably on synth 2, the first thing I appreciated was having volume and EQ controls at my fingertips. EQ is two-band high- and low-shelving, which gave me the option of adding a little air or removing some low-end rumble. Prior to having the 402, I'd been struggling with the sound of the amps and balancing levels. I felt as though I was running back and forth spinning sonic plates on sticks. I can't tell you what a relief it was to have the 402. Everything was under control and I heard a clean, professional sound. The only issue I had was a bit of disappointment with this "Artist" modeling pedal I had bought recently—I couldn't get it to sound right. I figured that maybe mono summing was the problem, so I set the pedal for stereo output (moved the synths to channel 3-4) and connected it to channels 1 and 2 of the 402, which both have a switchable Hi-Z 1/4" input and can be combined into a stereo pair at the press of a button, which hardpans them left and right—perfect! (I'm constantly amazed at how Mackie seems to think of every possible scenario in advance.) I then went stereo line-out into my trusty Summit preamp and sure enough, there was the pedal's stellar sound as promised. Thanks to the ultracompact 402-VLZ3, I was ready for Freddy.
Couldn't sleep, so I decided to run through the show and test the 802-VLZ3. Somehow, Mackie has managed to shrink a large-format console down to munchkin-size and retain the sound quality and functionality. With three XLR ins, three pairs of stereo inputs, and slightly larger size, it still fit comfortably on top of my synths. That's when I started wavering about bringing the 402. I liked the greater amount of control the 802 offered—and I didn't know what I'd be facing at the jam. My jam-night setup would be guitar effects into channels 1 and 2; synth 1 into channel 3, which can either be mono XLR or stereo TRS; and synth 2 stereo into line-in 5-6 (didn't need 7-8). Did I mention that the sound of the Mackie preamps was so good, I kept thinking that I was hearing the Summit pres? (Line-in bypasses the Summit's preamp section.) For those who don't know, Summit makes high-end studio gear. Anyway, it was a done deal—I'd be taking the 802 to the gig. If I had just the guitar and one stereo synth, the 402-VLZ3 would have easily done the trick. Keep in mind that there's absolutely no difference in sound quality between the two. Getting back to the "Mackie thinks of everything" department, the external power supply has a locking connector so you never have to worry about accidental disconnection during a performance. How clever is that?!
It's Thursday—night before the gig—our dress rehearsal. I brought the 802-VLZ3 with me. Setup went faster and the first thing everybody noticed was how good the Artist pedal and the rest of my setup sounded. Having the Mackie's three-band EQ made it easy for me to blend my instruments and balance levels with the other players. Best of all, I could bring all of my instruments up or down at once with the main volume knob. Finally, I could actually play music instead of controls.
It's Friday night, our turn to play, and setup was a nightmare—I had no amps to plug into. Meanwhile, the FOH engineer comes to help out. I pointed him to the two TRS main outs of the Mackie (there's also XLR and RCA) and I was plugged into the main board and ready to go. Had the Mackie not shown up when it did, there would have been no gig for my band—or at least plenty of pandemonium trying to get me set up. How did the set go? Suffice to say, everything came together and we "punted posterior and accepted billing information"—all thanks to the Mackie 802-VLZ3.
I LOVE THESE MIXERS! Sorry, didn't mean to shout, but I really do. Trying to find a small-format mixer that sounds like the big boys has been near-impossible till now. The new Mackie VLZ series changes all that. I'd use these anytime, anywhere, and in any professional setting without reservation. In short—great sounding, super-functional for its size, and a gig/life-saver. If you have a small computer-based recording setup, either of these mixers will do, but I'd recommend the 802-VLZ3 hands-down for the small home studio. It gives you aux sends for external processing, outputs to feed control room monitors, dedicated tape in/out, and above all, fantastic sound. It also comes with Mackie's Tracktion 3 Project Bundle music production software. (The 402-VLZ3 ships with the Tracktion 3 Basic Bundle).